Minneapolis Public Schools students eat 100% locally-grown meals the first Thursday of every month, referred to at the district as Minnesota Thursdays. Anything from turkey to sambusa to Jonny Pops might show up on the menu. Minnesota Thursdays combine healthy ingredients, sustainability, and attention to the local economy for tasty meals each month.
“Nationally, we’re one of the highest regarded food service departments. Locally, no one knows we exist," the district’s Director of Culinary and Wellness Services Bertrand Weber said.
The program began eight years ago but paused for the pandemic and restarted again in 2022. It stemmed from the farm-to-school initiative that began in 2012 to support local, small, newly emerging farmers. Weber got the idea after he attended a conference in California where he learned that the state does California Thursdays every week. He brought the idea back to Minnesota for monthly state-focused meals.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to once a month promote and showcase local businesses, local food, and show how we’re supporting the local economy and kind of engage kids to understand where their food comes from,” Weber said.
This year, the district started focusing on culturally-specific meals, like a Somali meal in April that included sambusa from a local Somali company, sabaayad bread from a bakery on Lake Street, a bariis, or Somali rice, recipe from a local Somali chef, and the best part– dolsho leen leeh, or lemon yogurt cake, for dessert.
“Before the pandemic it was really well-known amongst all the kids because in addition to being Minnesota Thursdays, it’s also the only time throughout the month that we serve a dessert,” Weber said.
Locally sourced meals are a big shift from the early 2000s when most food at MPS was heavily processed or frozen.
Most MPS schools didn’t even have kitchens to make meals until the early 2000s. The MPS school board built the central kitchen on Plymouth Avenue near Hall Elementary in 1975 to make food en masse, package it, and send it to each school TV dinner-style. Around 2000, the central kitchen replaced cooking materials with packaging equipment and shifted to completely packaged meals instead of cooking.
When Weber arrived in 2012, schools started rebuilding kitchens and the central kitchen became functional for cooking again. A farm-to-school coordinator started the program to begin sourcing food from around the state.
Today, turkey, potatoes and beef come from various local farms. There are two fields of carrots just for MPS students about three miles outside of the city.
While 20 MPS schools still rely on pre-packaged meals, these meals are cooked at the central kitchen. The central kitchen also makes sauces, ranch dressing, roasted chicken and other ingredients. Ingredients that can easily be made in batches are made in the 500-gallon pot or the 800-gallon sous vide tank. Schools with functional kitchens prepare the other parts of the meal. For example, cooks at the central kitchen make batches of marinara sauce and send it to schools, where cooks will prepare the noodles and other components to make lasagna for the students.
There are seven trucks that make the rounds from the central kitchen to each MPS school twice a day. These trucks bring ingredients like the marinara sauce to schools two days prior to the meal being served and they bring pre-packaged meals one day prior to the day.
With over 300 employees, nearly 70 schools and over 30,000 students, each individual meal doesn’t always turn out as intended.
“I go out to schools and I eat the food and some days I have a big smile on my face, and some days I go back to the office and go ‘what the hell did I just see there? This is not what we’re supposed to be serving,’” Weber said. “So it’s an ongoing challenge.”
Sometimes these visits initiate alterations to the recipes or enforcing the recipe as is.
“I have 66 restaurants. Biggest franchise in the Twin Cities,” Weber said. “Even though the recipe is the same at every school, sometimes they don’t always come out the same.”
Outside of Minnesota Thursdays, the monthly menu at MPS schools boasts a variety of meals including beef stroganoff, cheese tamales, honey chipotle fish, and sweet and sour tofu. The smiley fries and cheese-less burgers of the early 2000s are nowhere to be seen.
A committee including the executive chef, a buyer, the farm-to-school coordinator, a dietician and two site supervisors put together the menu a year in advance and review the monthly menus a month at a time for seasonality. Menu inspiration comes from student committees like student council, food trends and fast-casual restaurants.
There are Jr. Iron Chef recipes, like BBQ rubbed chicken drumstick with dirty rice, from a competition in which MPS students compete alongside local chefs for the winning recipe to be used across the district.
There is a “plant-forward” option for every meal. These options, which are always vegetarian and oftentimes vegan, are increasingly popular among students. Weber said that they market the option as plant-forward because students reject being put in the “vegetarian” box. The district does not serve meat imitations because of how processed they are, but there are black bean burgers, cheese substitutions for meat, and other plant-based meals.
The wellness portion of Culinary and Wellness Services began six years ago because Weber wanted to push the idea that nutrition and physical activity contribute to overall child wellness. The department manages the district’s five fleets of bikes, which they use for the Let’s Roll campaign in which students bike to Stone Arch Bridge and back.
The department is also in charge of community sites for Minneapolis kids to eat nutritious, pre-packaged meals for free at parks and other community gathering spots across the city. The sites operate during no-school days, early-release days and during the summer.
The universal school meal law that will go into effect next school year means that all these nutritious meals including breakfast, which the district was already providing for free to students who don’t qualify for free-and-reduced-price meals, will be free to children and their families.